Tag Archives: economics

Delia on Student Pulse

Student Pulse is an online journal of collegiate work with a variety of topics.  The idea was to take all the best papers written by college students and gather them in one location online for everyone to read.  So often, students write brilliant papers and they are only read by the professor or TA.  With Student Pulse, the whole world can read these papers, after they pass through the lengthy editorial process of the site’s administrators. 

A while ago, I submitted a paper for them, and this morning I got word that it appears on the website, in its entirety, here

The paper is a book review of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism that I wrote for M. Shahid Alam‘s Global Economy class, which is one of the toughest classes I’ve ever taken.  This book and its theories have likewise shaped many of my opinions on the world, and especially the US government and the CIA, since I first heard of them in Dr. Ryan’s high school AP history classes. 

If you’d like a little taste of what the book is about, and to see some fine short film creation, check out Klein’s collaboration with Alfonso Cuarón, acclaimed writer and director of Children of Men, another piece that shaped my world.  Marisa, this means you!

You can also see a link to the paper on the site’s main page.

“Useless” Day

Tuesday illustrated to me why we’re here, and for once I am excited about what we will be doing.  I think a lot of my

The women de-shell peanuts after they've been heated over an open fire, making the job easier.

group misunderstood the situation, which was unfortunate, because learning was lost there.

There have been days where we mostly sit and watch the women work, or play with the kids while the women work.  This was not one of those days.  Today, the majority of the women went to the market to sell products, while a smaller group and ourselves sat in the shade.  All day long.

We were sitting there because the women only own three large metal bowls, which are used for work, storage, transportation and sales.  When the women go to the market, they bring all the product they have to make it worth their while, meaning that there are no bowls back at the ranch to be used in production.

Today we literally lived through a lack of capacity, which left me completely convinced that our plan is the way to go.

Rolling the peanut paste (after the oil has been extracted) into sticks that will be fried in peanut oil.

The Request

The women have made it clear that they want machines to grind their raw materials so they can be made into products.  Buying one of these machines is costly, but would save them time and money, as well as bring in profit from those who live nearby and would pay for the use of the machine, they way they pay to use someone else’s now.

Buying the machine for the peanuts is the most logical because it also works with the soy.  Also, the machine they currently pay to use instead is significantly farther away.  Furthermore, peanuts are very cheap to buy and yield two products, one of which is rather lucrative.

The Reality

While it may be great to start with the flashy machine that would bring in the big bucks (2,000 CFA per batch of peanut or soy that someone pays them to have processed, plus a savings of two hours and 1,000 CFA a week to transport themselves via motorbike to the location of the machine they currently use), I don’t think it’s a sound decision.

You need to start from the ground up, and right now the women waste many hours and several days every week waiting for their equipment.  With very little money, we can double the number of bowls and tables they have, allowing for more production and storage.  We can also buy a proper storage container for the corn, freeing up the bowls to be used for work more often than storage.

Drying the galletas (peanut sticks) into a delicious frenzy.

The Linchpin

The piece of this plan that makes me actually proud is the last bit: financial planning.  We cannot give them the machine because we can’t afford it.  But honestly, their current business model cannot accommodate it right now, either.  Instead, we’re going to increase their production and productivity, capitalizing on the workforce that is often unused.  This will in turn build up their revenues, and allow them to continue to work while others make trips to the market and to use the machines.

For the long-term, we are going to work with the women on a better savings plan.  Right now they don’t have an accounting system.  While they do have a group savings, much of that goes to a party at the end of the year.  We plan to separate the party fund from the longterm savings fund, which will be available for the purpose of buying the machine for the peanuts and soy someday.  Additionally, an emergency fund would be beneficial.  We intend to divert the additional money they make from the additional equipment we’re giving them.  That money will go towards buying the machine—they didn’t have it before, so they won’t miss it, and reinvesting their capital will help far more in the long run.

The end result, which we happily munched on. All this could be accomplished quicker and on a grander scale, which is our aim with a few slight tweaks to the model.

Our Accidental Advantage

Sometimes we underestimate the consequential knowledge of which we are the unwitting beneficiaries.  The idea of long-term savings is something we were raised with, as well as the value of a surplus and reinvesting in yourself and your business.  Between our greater years of education and growing up in homes that save for retirement, college funds, vacations and small business, we have been exposed to much more sound financial advice than we realize, and much more than the average Beninoise.  We intend to pass along these ideas, as well as the basic materials that in the end, make a large long-term difference, so that the women don’t have more days like today: waiting in the hot sun for something to happen.

But Are They Happy?

Since my return, many people have asked me if Cubans are happy.  Some ask without judgment, while others convey that they believe Cubans are silently outraged or depressed, yet others still assume that they live happy, simple, carefree lives.

I have a hard time answering this question.  No, they’re not depressed about being from Cuba.  They’re proud of it, and they’re proud that their country has succeeded, despite America’s best efforts.  They’re proud of Cuba being their own man, so to speak.  They’re proud of the music, artes plasticos, films and athletes that come from their island.

But I don’t want to infantilize them, either.  They’re not living some blissfully ignorant life.  Many people have commented to me flippantly that if only they knew what we have, they would be sad or jealous or want to be Good Capitalists, instead of Good Communists.  But that it isn’t so. They’ve seen House and Grey’s Anatomy and Gilmore Girls.  They have the internet, albeit slow, and American radio.  They are not ignorant of our way of life, yet many of them do not covet it. There are many who do, of course.  Some want to not be discriminated against because of the color of their skin.  Some want to be able to make a decent living.  These are the ones who I think are the most deluded, the ones who are fooling themselves in thinking they can get these things in America.

I think there’s something to be said for sticking around with your family and friends.  Not that I hold anything against the so-called guzanos or those who want to Jump Ship, I just mean that I respect someone who has seen the “streets paved with gold” and had the intelligence to see past the illusion or the heart not to give up their Home for it.

Cubans are happy: they dance, sing, drink and tell stories.  But they’re not ignorant.  They’re not these sad little simpletons who don’t know they’re poor, or this entire island of people too terrified to speak their mind.  Cubans are pretty opinionated, and definitely long-winded.  I think most of them want more from their government, but who doesn’t?  Even Libertarians want something more, it just happens to be that that something more is for their government to exist less.

I think Cubans are optimists.  I think that they choose not to dwell on the bad parts: to tell you about the domino game on the roof, instead of the valuables lost, when the floods come waist high in their houses.  I think they want the revolution to continue in new, ever-changing, ever-evolving forms–not capitalism.  I think communist values are inherently good and worthwhile, and it would be as hard to remove them from Cubans as it would be to ingrain them in Americans.

So try not to think of a country in such simple, blanket terms.  Are Americans happy?  Are Americans any one thing?  Rarely can you say yes, unless that one thing is “complaining” or “individualistic.”  I think many more Cubans are happy than you think, but I don’t believe it’s for any lack of intelligence or awareness.  I think they actively decide to be happy; I think it’s a cultural value the way we value cynicism and sarcasm.

I think happiness is a state of mind and a decision, and that theirs, which is more or less collective, and is a greater measure of their culture than of their government or GDP.

Do I Like Cuba?

I am not enamored of Cuba.  I am not effusively happy about it.  It’s just not that kind of place.

Cuba is not a crush,  And neither is three months of travel.

It’s not a vacation, either.

It’s living.  I live here.

Cuba is a gutted car from The Godfather next to a horse-drawn cart.  It’s power outages and hustlin’.  It’s bread that lasts for weeks and vegetarian dishes full of chicken.  It’s pushing your busted bus and walking for what seems like forever to get to a club.  Cuba is gossip and falsehoods and vagueries. Cuba is rum and cigars and knowing your friends can’t really afford either.  It’s plastic bracelets for all inclusive resorts, and black Cubans kept outside the door.  It’s plucking fresh flowers and beating your girlfriend in public.  Glorious sunny beaches, music in the air, dancing into the night.  Cuba is a mezcla, a sopa above all else.

It’s hard to know which reactions are from the length of stay and which are due to the actual location.  But the fact of the matter is, Cuba is not a sight-heavy place; there aren’t many monuments here.  I mean, they create a lot of them, but one Marti statue is basically as good as any other.  For Cuba, I think it’s about opening your eyes, making some friends, and finding the best experiences around.  So far, I think I’ve done a pretty good job with that.

I’ve been going through the group one by one and asking them if they like Cuba.  Surprisingly, only one person has turned the question back on me, and it rather caught me off guard.  Since then, I’ve been trying to formulate my response.  I’ll be sharing with you what my compadres and some tourists have said a little later, when I have more responses

There’s an immense amount of pressure to LOVE everywhere you go, as well as to enjoy every packed minute of it, whatever that means.

I definitely am enjoying myself here, and I want to come back, but I’ll be happy to have a steak, a cheeseburger and my own bed when I go home.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that I like Cuba, but I’d like it more if they had decent towels and pillows.  Whenever we encounter those or hot showers it’s like the Clampets just got to the big city.  At nice hotels on excursions we steal food from the buffet, take the toilet paper and lust after the fluffy towels.

I know it sounds bratty to say all this, but think about it.  For three months, you have bad toilet paper or none at all.  You sleep in a small, uncomfortable bed, and you very rarely eat a good, solid meal.  All the food is monotonous, when it’s even there.  All service is slow, inefficient and unreliable.

If they ever open a Wal-Mart here, I simply wouldn’t recognize the place.

So yeah, I like it here.  I’m so glad I took the opportunity, and I would never change or trade it.  But I would definitely pack differently next time.

What Does Poverty Look Like?

While In Egypt, I discussed how different poverty looks from one country to another.  I remember first arriving in Cairo and thinking I was looking at slums and abject poverty, and then realizing later that I lived in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in one of the wealthiest cities in one of the wealthiest countries on the continent.


Here, poverty looks different too.  It’s hard to judge individual poverty since almost all buildings are crumbling and in disrepair.   Then there’s the small matter of this being a communist country–a doctor’s salary is going to be on par with a bureaucrat, an athlete’s with a teacher.

Then there are the signs that are different here than in the US.  Clothing, for example.  It simply isn’t all that available.  There isn’t a lot of variety to be had.  Falla, who I think is doing okay financially in his capacity as a professor, radio personality and musician, always looks sharp.  He wears suit jackets and dress pants, and often dresses all in black, especially to perform. Then you notice he always wears the same shoes, which is not a big deal.  But then you notice they’re usually the same black clothes.  Finally, you notice those aren’t dress pants; there are cargo pockets on the sides.  So if Falla, who clearly takes pride in his appearance and has done well for himself and his family, can’t get a couple full suits, how the hell can anyone else?

What do you think poverty looks like in the US?  We often hear that it’s invisible.  Many families go to great pains to look outwardly normal, to remain in the same tax bracket they once occupied even if it’s only in appearance. We hear about parents going without food so their kids grow up healthy, and picking up second and third jobs so their kids wear normal clothes and go to college like everyone else.

What does poverty look like here?  The peanut man, yeah, he’s probably poor.  The people with undocumented residences, also known as ramshackle huts?  Yes, they’re not doing well, but they’re way out of sight, especially from tourists.  Sometimes you notice that a friend is incredibly thin, even though they hide it well in their well-worn clothes.

But then I remember, I live in Vedado.  This is a wealthy neighborhood.  In the economic center of the country.  A country that is often chastised for its “greed” with reminders that it is prospering in comparison with other Latin American countries.  In Padrino’s neighborhood, the rooms are tiny and the plumbing is almost non-existent.  In Alex’s section of our own Vedado, people have gaping holes in their floor and possessions are often stolen.

I’m still trying to calibrate for the Cuban scale of poverty, and even trying to grapple with class and poverty in this, the alleged utopia of the poor.

Social Status is the New Economic Status

…or the old socio-economic status.  AKA class.

There are economic differences in Cuba, but they’re not huge.  Then again, if you get no meat ration, the man with a bad steak is King.  I also don’t know how much I believe it.  I hear there are homeless, and I know there are undocumented and unemployed people.  What about them?

And, while polarization may not be great, where is that decently uniform population located on the poverty scale?  Abby thinks proportionally, there are far more starving people here than in the US.  That is probably true, but I think it downplays the hunger and poverty in the US, just because it isn’t visible.*  Tambien, creo que es una moda muy capitalista to say that poor people in the US have the opportunity, thus it’s their fault they are poor.  Here in Cuba, it’s the responsibilty of the state.  Because of this, they are considered innocent by many western minds.  I don’t know if that last part is right or wrong, but I do think it’s a uniquely western, capitalist mode of thought.

I think Cuba needs to revisit their social contract.  It used to be your (vigorous) loyalty and work in exchange for health care, education, food, housing and work opportunities.  On paper, anyway.

Now, it’s acquiescence and loyalty in exchange for two weeks of basics every month, free health care (pending supplies and lines), an outdated education bereft of critical thinking, a cumbling house (maybe) and perhaps underemployment.

So Social Status.

When you don’t have much, and neither does anyone else, standing means more.  It’s supposed to actually reflect your character and some amount of hard work.  Falla explained that he works hard at the radio station to create good programming and retain many listeners because of social standing and pride in his own work.  He and the station won’t make anymore if they have a higher listenership.  But, according to Falla, it will bring them benefit indirectly.  In what way, he did not explain, but he did allude to some form of material gain.

When discussing Magia of the hiphop group Obsesión, Profe happily informed us that her life will be a little easier now, because she has a government position as head of the cultural branch that oversees hiphop.  Yes, that’s a thing in Cuba.  Minister of hiphop.  While Alexey (her partner in Obsesión and in life) may still have to sell his clothes and wood carvings to clueless tourists, something in their life is easier because of the social prestige afforded to her a causa de su nueva posicion.

So the next question: what is this something?  What is the advantage?  Is it purely social?  Do you think the Cuban government is making good on the social contract?  Do you think the American government is making good on ours?  Are they allowed to ignore a terrible health care system as well as those below the poverty line just because they never promised to take care of everyone?  Can you revisit a social contract?  Let me know what you think, these are just the ideas that have been buzzing around my brain.

*Not that hunger is all that visible here (poverty is), but we hear about Cuban poverty in the US.

“I Don’t Understand This Place At All”

I truly believe that it’s called writer’s block (not writer’s lack of inspiration) for a reason other than brevity.  Sometimes you just can’t write anything else until you write through the block.  So that’s what yesterday was.  Back to regularly scheduled programming.

There’s a lot that I don’t understand here, a lot that none of us do.  Even Profe, who’s Cuban-American and has been here upwards of ten times is still trying to figure things out.  As Abby says, we probably won’t understand what we’ve learned here for at least another ten years.  Some information is scarce because people don’t want to talk about it, but often it’s because the government doesn’t state certain things publicly, and chooses not to ask certain questions on its census.

I’m looking forward to learning a bit about how the ration books work later on this week.  From what I hear, the rations only realistically last about two weeks, and don’t include essentials like meat and milk.  It’s towards the end of the month, which means we didn’t have bread or eggs last week, and water is scarce this week.  For our Cuban friends, this means going days without eating and trying to sell your stuff.

There is basically no fresh milk here, it’s all powdered.  Most people here in the Real World House turn up their nose at it, and it goes untouched many days.  As far as I know, Cubans who aren’t babies don’t generally get access.

There is no lottery here, because gambling is illegal.  There are of course numbers games on the street.  There are no taxes, because EVERYTHING is taxes…the government is just kind enough to take them out first.  The sidewalks are all cracked and a mess, with big holes or rusty bits of metal sticking up out of them.  Sometimes the holes are repaired with sand or bathroom tiles, but more often they aren’t repaired at all.

There are CDRs, Comites por Defensa la Revolucion.  Essentially, they were started to keep watch on their neighbors.  They have since become leaders in distributing vaccines and helping during a natural disaster.  They remind me of The Duke’s system of block captains and precinct captains for grassroots political organization.  I suppose the only difference is that here, it’s not grassroots.

There is not 100% employment.  Some people say if you lose your job it’s your fault.  Some people say there just aren’t enough jobs to go around.  Almost everyone does more than one thing.  Doctors are dancers; professors are cab drivers.  A single income just isn’t enough, and access to CUC (instead of just Moneda Nacional) is necessary for luxury goods.  Like any meat of quality.  By quality, I mean the most basic cuts and qualities that you would find in the US.

There is no lawsuit culture.  Are there even lawyers?

Because of the emphasis on culture, your state-sponsored job could be to rap, or dance traditional afro-cuban dances.  Because of the focus on tourism, your state-sponsored job could be walking around Habana Vieja dressed in all white, chomping on a giant cigar, taking pictures with everybody.  Basically, your job as a good revolutionary could be to hussle gringos.

These are all just bits and pieces of every day life that don’t fit in anywhere else, and stuff that doesn’t make sense to me, put here in an attempt to fill in the holes of my portrait of Cuba.